Board of Deputies President: ‘I was overwhelmed by welcome from French Jewish community

Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl recently returned from France where she was overwhelmed by the welcome she received from representatives of Le Crif, the French-Jewish representative organisation, and at the Great Synagogue in Paris.

Marie says: “The UK and France account for the majority of the Jewish population in western Europe but we really don’t know that much about the French community. However, I have to say I was overwhelmed by the welcome and the hospitality I received on this visit.”

Marie was accompanied by Board of Deputies Chief Executive Michael Wegier and Communities Manager Lauren Keiles on her trip to the French capital. Later, she also travelled to the Channel coast to visit the refugee camp at Dunkirk.

She spent Shabbat at the Great Synagogue in central Paris where she “was treated like royalty”.

Marie recalls: “I can’t tell you what a welcome I got from Rabbi Moshe Seebag and the whole community as I walked up that beautiful aisle to the bimah on Friday evening. On the left they have a beautiful chair, like a throne. I was told to sit there, as a special privilege as the leader of my community. It was very touching.”

The surroundings are grand and are matched by the outfits of the synagogue officials. “In West London Synagogue, top hats are worn but here their headgear resembles something that Napoleon would have worn. It goes right back to the 19th century when the land for the synagogue was gifted to the Jews. Dreyfuss was also married here so the place has quite a history.”

She also attended the Shabbat morning service and Havdalah that evening. “So many people wanted to speak to me, it was such a special weekend”.  Marie was also impressed by how eclectic the Paris community was as well as the number of kosher restaurants in the city – more than 100 at the last count.

During the trip to France she held meetings with her Le Crif colleagues and there was a dinner at which she met the Israeli Ambassador to France. She also had an opportunity to visit a refugee camp at Dunkirk, accompanied by Board of Deputies Communities Manager Lauren Keiles and her Crif counterpart, Marie-Sarah Seeberger. They met NGOs supporting the refugees and heard and volunteered with the food distribution service. “It reminded me of Pesach which is all about helping strangers as we were strangers in Egypt. The refugees were cheerful, polite and they all seemed really pleased to see us. I was troubled by the evictions which take place – people are removed from their tents and their possessions are taken. That is troubling and faith leaders have a role to play here.”

She was touched by a conversation she had with one boy in particular. “He spoke good English and was able to tell me about his journey. He had been on a truck and had walked through 12 countries to arrive there. It was a troubling experience. We need to do more to help.”

Photo: Left to right: Rabbi Moshe Seebag, Marie van der Zyl,  Michael Wegier, Great Synagogue President Jacques Canet, Lauren Keiles

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